Active in Chilean solidarity work years before he helped open Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center, Eric Leensen clearly remembers the ups and downs of the organization's first three decades, from the packed house for Cesar Chavez' fiftieth birthday party to an undersize crowd of six for a South African play featuring then-unknown local actor Danny Glover.
One of South Berkeley's true success stories, the nonprofit restaurant, concert hall, and classroom facility celebrates its thirtieth birthday this Saturday with a free outdoor street festival from noon to 6 p.m. Music is provided by Chilean singer Rafael Manriquez, La Peña's La Bomba (drum) class, La Familia, La Peña Afro Cuban Youth Ensemble, Pachasiku, Jesus Diaz y Su QBA, Youth Movement Records, and DJ Jose Ruiz. Kids' performers include Bonnie Lockhart, Asheba, and Gary Lapow.
One myth of La Peña's origin is that it was started by Chilean refugees fleeing the 1973 CIA-backed military coup in their homeland. "Chileans were involved," Leensen recalls, "but they were already living here, and we were in solidarity work, doing what we could to stop the US from intervening in the democratically elected government." Leensen had been studying in Chile on a Fulbright scholarship when Salvador Allende was elected president, and struck up a friendship with Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. Back in Berkeley, Leensen stayed involved with support groups, helping organize benefits. Following the coup, Leensen and his friends realized that a permanent facility would be more effective, and noticed at one benefit held at the Starry Plough pub that the building next door was available.
"We had in mind a much smaller place, modeled on the peñas -- gathering places throughout Latin America," he says. "It was fortunate for us that a restaurant had just abandoned the building, so other than having to clean rotting food from the refrigerators, nearly everything we needed was already in place. We opened in 1975 with only $10,000, which was all we had." In 1978 La Peña bought its building. A few years later Leensen stopped working full-time there, although he is still on the board, and now runs Progressive Asset Management, a socially responsible investment company.
While Chile was the catalyst for La Peña's birth, its members have always kept the doors open to anyone involved in the struggle for democracy and justice. The American Indian Movement held meetings there for five years, Abraham Lincoln Brigade members would reunite at La Peña, and early supporter Tom Bates held monthly constituency meetings. The staff brought in an array of music, from artists such as Cuba's Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Lazaro Ros, Chile's Inti-Illimani, Nicaragua's Duo Guardabarranco, and Argentina's legendary Mercedes Sosa to domestic talents like Sweet Honey in the Rock, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Holly Near, Amiri Baraka, Isabel Allende, Aya de León, Linda Tillery's Cultural Heritage Choir, and John Santos' various bands. Then and now, the restaurant hosts its own music, the various rooms serve for nonprofit group meetings, and in-house musicians teach music classes. "It often feels like a three-ring circus," Leensen admits. No wonder then-Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport called La Peña "the Great Hall of Peoples."
Today's five-nights-a-week programming runs from the International Disability Film Festival to poetry slams and hip-hop shows. The thirtieth-anniversary programming is far from over, and includes this weekend's Cantinflas! stage tribute to Mexico's comedic actor, La Peña Community Chorus next Friday (June 17), popular Los Angeles Chicano band Quetzal (Saturday, June 18), and the latest in the six-month Mujeres (women) series, a dance on Saturday, June 25, with Marina Garza and Orquesta d'Sol, plus salsa band Montuno Groove. All events are held at the center at 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. For more information, visit www.lapena.org or call 510-849-2568.
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